Here’s how studios say they see it: Sure, we really want to hire women directors. But there’s almost no studio movie that isn’t big budget, and we can’t find women who have the experience necessary to handle the really big movies. (Never mind Colin Trevorrow. Or Marc Webb. Or Gareth Edwards. Or Jon Watts.)
Of course, that logic is a vicious cycle at best, but here’s a chance to break it. Director Reed Morano’s dazzling execution of the first three episodes of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” suggests another excellent source for future women directors: top cinematographers.
Women cinematographers work harder, longer, and have to be gifted and tough in order to keep landing jobs. As a cinematographer, make one mistake and you’re through. Any working cinematographer has more than proven their technical and visual ability.
No question that directing requires a broader set of skills: There’s storytelling, dealing with studio brass, working with actors, leading all the departments, and carrying an entire production in your head. While some cinematographers can’t manage that transition, the list of male cinematographers who have moved on to directing is long: Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg, Barry Sonenfeld, and Jan De Bont among them.
Clearly, Reed Morano has the right stuff. She displayed her photographic skills on “Frozen River,” “The Skeleton Twins,” and Martin Scorsese’s HBO series “Vinyl,” and directed and shot her own indie film, “Meadowland,” before taking the reins on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She’s in production on dystopian drama “I Think We’re Alone Now” starring Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning, and will next shoot “First Chair,” a relationship drama with Jeff Bridges and Diane Lane.
For your consideration, an alphabetical list of nine powerful women cinematographers who could move into the director’s chair.
1. Maryse Alberti
French-born Maryse Alberti won a 1990 Sundance prize for her first doc “H-2 Worker.” She uses very different skills when shooting an Alex Gibney documentary like “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” where she relies on reactive instinct, than the more intellectual planning of a narrative film like Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine,” Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” or Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which requires that “when you go into a room, you know where to put the camera,” she said. “In the world of features, you learn to tell a story by controlling the camera.”
Next up: John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” starring Kate Mara, Ed Helms, and Jason Clarke.
The cinematographer made her name in commercials and music videos for the likes of Rihanna and Oasis before shooting two stylish art films: David Michod’s dystopian “The Rover” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s smart horror entry “Neon Demon.”
Next up: The untitled Nash Edgerton Project.
Denzel Washington hired the Danish-born cinematographer for “Fences” after his producer Todd Black suggested her; the director admired her work on Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” and “Far From the Madding Crowd.” “I loved her shots,” Washington told me. “I liked what she did, and she’s tough. She has an opinion. I like the fact that she operates.”
Christensen also shot Anton Corbijn’s “Life” and went on to shoot Tate Taylor’s visually sumptuous “The Girl on the Train.”
Next Up: Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game,” starring Jessica Chastain.
4. Anette Haellmigk
The unsung hero of “Game of Thrones” had to learn to juggle multiple crews and episodes on far-flung locations from Croatia to Iceland. The German-born cinematographer came up in the ’80s when there were no women in the field, mentored by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jost Vacano (“Das Boot”) and Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, doing assistant camerawork on such big-scale projects as “The Neverending Story” and “Robocop.”
“Total Recall” marked her first job as an A camera operator, and on “Starship Troopers,” Verhoeven made her his second unit director of photography. Becoming a cinematographer in her own right, however, took time. Her entree into television was director Alex Graves, who brought her in to shoot three episodes of of “The West Wing” long before “Game of Thrones;” she went on to shoot three seasons of HBO’s “Big Love” and HBO’s “Insecure.” She has scored three ASC nominations and two Emmy nominations for “Game of Thrones.”
Next up: More “Game of Thrones.”
5. Ellen Kuras
Well-known for her work with Tom Kalin (“Swoon”), Rebecca Miller (“Personal Velocity,” “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,”), Michel Gondry (“The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and Spike Lee (“4 Little Girls,” “Bamboozled,” “Summer of Sam” and “He Got Game”), Kuras has moved into directing documentaries, television and commercials, winning an Emmy and a 2009 Oscar nomination for “The Betrayal” (with Thavisouk Phrasavath).
Next up: She’s now shooting Netflix series “Ozark.”
Photo Courtesy of MACRO
The well-rounded AFI Conservatory grad ranges between documentaries (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), TV movies (HBO’s “Confirmation”), and indie features (“Cake,” “Dope,” “Fruitvale”). At this year’s Sundance, Dee Rees’s period drama “Mudbound” displayed Morrison’s stunning work on a more lavish canvas.
Next up: Ryan Coogler’s Marvel entry “Black Panther.”
7. Tami Reiker
Women hired her on her first three films, including Lisa Cholodenko, whose “High Art” was her breakout. “Women helped me by passing my name around,” she said on a Los Angeles Film Festival panel. “It seems to continue that way.” She also shot Peter Hedges’ “Pieces of April,” HBO’s period extravaganza “Carnivale,” and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights.”
Next up: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new Fox series, “Shots Fired.”
8. Amy Vincent
The cinematographer on “Hustle & Flow,” “Black Snake Moan,” “Eve’s Bayou,” and “Footloose” worked her way up from an intern at Warner Bros. the old-fashioned way, from loader to camera assistant to director of photography. “They never raised my gender as an issue,” she said. As she sees it, her job is to balance the vision of the director with the reality of the shooting schedule.
Next up: J.R. Niles’ indie feature “Bonds.”
9. Mandy Walker
The Australian started as a teenage clapper loader at a TV station and advanced through the camera department, shooting her first feature at age 25. She proved herself with Baz Luhrmann on Chanel No. 5 commercials before shooting his $120 million Hollywood epic “Australia.” For the climactic scene, she took exhaustive notes on exposures and photos of what she shot on location in order to match the close-ups shot on set six months later. She also shot John Curran’s stunning outback adventure “Tracks” with Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver, Natalie Portman western “Jane Got a Gun,” and Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures.”
Next Up: Idris Elba and Kate Winslet star in survival adventure “The Mountain Between Us.”